L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Gardner Fox and Appendix N: Advanced Readings in D&D

L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Gardner Fox and Appendix N: Advanced Readings in D&D

The Compleat Enchanter-smallOver at Tor.com, the intrepid Mordicai Knode and Tim Callahan have been conducting dangerous psychoreality experiments, just like William Hurt in Altered States.

I don’t expect you to get that reference, because Altered States came out, like, a billion years ago. But trust me, it was wild. William Hurt locks himself in a sensory deprivation tank until he turns into some kind of glowing protoplasm. And Blair Brown got naked. A lot. Drew Barrymore played their 4-year old daughter, if that helps you understand how old this movie is.

Anyway, Mordicai and Tim have convinced the brain trust at Tor.com to let them attempt the same thing, in the name of science. Tor doesn’t have the budget for an awesome sensory deprivation tank (or to pay anyone to get naked), but they’ve got the essentials down. For the last month or so, Mordicai and Tim have been refusing all outside stimulus except the work of those authors listed in Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide.

They’re consuming nothing but Mountain Dew and Doritos Locos Tacos from Taco Bell, and electrodes attached to their brains will capture the exact moment they transform into Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Hasn’t happened yet but, believe me, the stars are right and the time grows nigh.

In the meantime, teams of diligent scribes have been scribbling down every word Mordicai and Tim speak as they grow closer and closer to ultimate enlightenment. We’re here to share some of the best with you. Take them in small doses, this is potent stuff.

They start with L. Sprague de Camp, author of the early alternate history novel Lest Darkness Fall (1939), The Wheels of If (1948), Rogue Queen (1951), and, with Robert E. Howard, Tales of Conan (1955), one of the very first Conan collections.

Here’s Tim on L. Sprague de Camp, who left him underwhelmed.

If I had to pick an unbearably sexist pulp writer, I’d chose Robert E. Howard over L. Sprague de Camp every time, because at least Howard didn’t wag his finger at women, and he allowed some of them to be on the same stage as the men, even if they were always the target for leering. It’s not a pretty sight, either way…

L. Sprague de Camp was a military man and a researcher and a prolific writer and based on what little I know about him, he totally would have been the rules lawyer at the table if he played Dungeons & Dragons with you, and he would have been the one to spend twenty minutes explaining why an Owlbear could not, in fact, have been found on the edges of the swamp you might be exploring because it was contrary to their nesting impulses and hibernation cycle.

Land of Unreason-smallRead the complete article here.

They don’t much care for the collaborative team of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, either. Together de Camp and Pratt co-wrote many fantasy classics, including The Castle of Iron, Land of Unreason, The Compleat Enchanter, Wall of Serpents, Tales from Gavagan’s Bar, The Carnelian Cube, and many others.

Here Mordicai struggles with the question: how did a book as bad as The Carnelian Cube (which Tim calls “the worst book out of the entirety of Appendix N, and I haven’t even read all the books yet”) end up on Appendix N?

Personally I think it is a factor of a couple of things at work… First, there is the eponymous cube, which is a pretty viable template for a D&D artifact, or at least a big influence. A classic MacGuffin. Secondly, there is the issue of perverting wishes; you know that is some Gygaxian flavor right there. If you give your players a Ring of Wishes, you are obligated to try to misinterpret them…the same way that the carnelian cube’s created dream worlds are pessimistic inversion of the users original intentions.

The other is in terms of worldbuilding. I think that glomming on to a high concept idea like “a world where pitiless logic wins” or “a world of individualism taken to the extreme” and spilling it out for a few chapters is actually a solid Dungeon Mastering trick. I mean, look at Star Trek’s Vulcans; they are basically just elves with “logical” thrown on as a cultural gimmick, right? That sort of tactic is a good way to add colour to your newest fantasy metropolis, or tribe of non-humans, or alternate universe…

Still, not a good enough reason to read this book, though.

The complete article is here.

Kothar and the Conjurer's Curse-smallFinally, here’s Tim on Gardner Fox, a frequent contributor to Dragon magazine, and his first Conan knock-off novel, Kothar of the Magic Sword:

Supposedly, Gary Gygax took the idea of the lich — a kind of ultra-powerful undead sorcerer — from Fox’s first Kothar book, in which the “living-dead wizard” Afgorkon gives Kothar the magic sword known as Frostfire…

Kothar’s a self-proclaimed adventurer, and in the spirit of adventuring that would influence a role-playing game in which experience points are granted by the accumulation of gold, Kothar’s main motivation is to make money…

There’s a second story in the book called “A Plague of Demons” which I could summarize at length as well, but let me give you the ultra-short version because I think you get the point of Kothar by now: a sexy sorceress taunts Kothar as he tries to rescue a young girl from the cult of Pulthoom, but the young girl is actually possessed by a different sexy sorceress and the reason the cult is so successful is because they have orgies all the time and anyway, Kothar rescues the girl-actually-an-evil-sorceress and fights some beast men and some dudes who call themselves Mongrols and then the really evil sorceress (not possessing the girl) plays mind games with Kothar and he saves her from something called a “mating duel”… it’s just as terrible and kind of great as it sounds.

It also sounds a lot like Dungeons & Dragons, as played by a bunch of teenagers pounding back cans of Mountain Dew.

Read the whole post here.

We last covered Mordicai and Tim’s reality-bending experiments on August 7th, when they discussed Roger Zelazny & August Derleth. The list of authors they’ve covered includes:

Leigh Brackett and J.R.R. Tolkien
Margaret St. Clair and Andrew Offutt
Lord Dunsany and Philip José Farmer
H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt
Manly Wade Wellman and Fletcher Pratt
Fredric Brown and Stanley G. Weinbaum
John Bellairs and Fred Saberhagen
Jack Williamson and Lin Carter
Andre Norton and Michael Moorcock
L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, and Gardner Fox
Roger Zelazny and August Derleth
Jack Vance
Fritz Leiber and Edgar Rice Burroughs
Sterling E. Lanier
Poul Anderson
Robert E. Howard

See the complete list here.

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Gruud

A bit off-topic (though you started it :)) but a while back I found Altered States on Blu-Ray for ten bucks at Best Buy. It was the only one and I snapped it up

The incresed definition was pretty great for the psychidelic scenes, but I still think the real strenth of the movie was the [spoiler alert] emergence of the ‘promordial man’

Good stuff.

James McGlothlin

Though I love the concept, and some of the posts, overall I’ve been disappointed with the Appendix N series at Tor.com. The general tone of those posts has been a bit snobby–as if we grownups are all too socially and culturally enlightened to take very many of these works seriously.

I’m all for critical engagement. Let me repeat, THIS SHOULD BE DONE! Nevertheless, I wish those articles would approach those older works more with a return to that 13-year old wonder we once had.

Barbara Barrett

John, your article brought back many wonderful memories. I spent about 72 hours in isolation (sensory deprivation) tanks in the mid 1970s at John Lilly’s place in the mountains above Malibu. I had met John and his wife Toni at a Berkeley lecture on the concepts of his book “The Center of the Cyclone.” John was a physician, psychiatrist, philosopher, writer and an authority on dolphin communications. He invented the isolation tank. I worked for him one summer transcribing the books from a dictation machine in return for tank time. The longest I spent in one session was 3.5 hours. It was a natural high for me but I knew that John was taking acid and other psychedelic drugs every time he went into the tank to enhance the trips. Although I thought the isolation tank scenes in Altered States were pretty accurate, I had a lot of trouble swallowing Hurt’s subsequent experiences and found it a little silly. Thanks for trip down memory lane. Those were fascinating days.

As far as their comment regarding REH’s depiction of women is concerned, not all the women were or were treated as arm candy in his stories. These were stories written in the 1920s and 30s and despite that, they contain many strong women. There are some good examples of this in the overview article “Feminism and the Women in Robert E. Howard’s Fiction.”

Part 1: The Empowered Woman: http://rehtwogunraconteur.com/?p=5437
Part 2: Inner Strength and Resolve: http://rehtwogunraconteur.com/?p=5510
Part 3: A Different Kind of Strength: http://rehtwogunraconteur.com/?p=5581

I agree with James McGlothlin regarding the tone of the articles by Knode and Callahan. Looking at these books through the eyes of a thirteen year old would give them more depth and wonder—and perhaps more appreciation.

RuneQuest

I too, have to agree with James McGlothlin, although I feel the tone in some of the later reviews has edged close to snide, rather than snobby.

In fact I’d go as far to say that Knode and Callahan are starting to come across _as_ thirteen year olds. Their lack comprehension (or perhaps acceptance) of cultural and historical context is almost as bigoted as the flaws they have levelled at a few of the authors they have thus far reviewed; looking back at these works through the inflexible eyes of modern preconceptions.

Sadly, instead of creating a series of reviews to ‘encourage’ the perusal of the authors which originally inspired Gygax – whether or not they personally enjoyed the works – some of the reviews might actually be driving off inquisitive readers.

Whether an author is an idea-stealing hack, misogynist, a racist or just plain painful to read – they deserve more than cynical ridicule. After all these are the works which promoted the development of Role-playing games in the first place. Personally I’d much rather Knode and Callahan be embracing the imagination and wonder of these often wonderful stories, so as to bring them to an entire new generation of readers and gamers.

Brooser Bear

I haven’t read the full article yet, but I do have something about the sensory deprivation tanks. You can rent time in one, say 8-10 hours, long enough to elicit hallucinations and altered states of consciousness. Seen that movie. One scene from it was borrowed by Peter Gabriel for the “Sledgehammer” music video. About the tanks themselves, only about $20-$30K. There is a fascinating story, also took place in New England and it has Lovecraftian overtones. Thee is a disease, called FFI (Fatal Familial Insomnia), it is a horrible disease, where the person loses the ability to fall asleep even for a second, and over the course of six months to a year dies a horrible death from total CNS exhaustion. You Tube FFI to see what it looks like. There was one person who lived for 36 months with it. It helped that he was wealthy, an academic researcher, who could afford to quit working and hire an assistant. After getting diagnosed, this person dedicated his life to figuring out how to capture what little sleep he could, how to stay awake (victims of this disease fall into a semi-conscious twilight state between sleep and wakefulness), and to extend his life. Typically, his efforts yielded him 2 -4 hours of sleep mostly by driving his camper van for about 16 hours, wit his assistant riding along for safety, but he also used a sensory deprivation tank for a while. In the tank he got 8 hours of sleep! However, he stopped using it, because he didn’t want to exist as an “Aqua Man” (!), probably his mental state deteriorated. A few months later he passed away from a major organ failure due to all the stimulants and barbiturates that he was talking to maintain the deteriorating sleep/wake cycles. Find his story on the web. But the upshot is, Sensory Deprivation Tanks are powerful, and they are pretty affordable if you can find one.

Ken Lizzi

After reading these Appendix N reviews I’m beginning to comprehend why the recent generations seem to prefer the newer versions of D&D. They just don’t grok the source material. So of course they prefer games inspired by more contemporary authors. That’s fine, it certainly doesn’t diminish my appreciation of Pratt, de Camp, et. al.

ChristianLindke

To not enjoy L. Sprague DeCamp’s CONAN is to follow what is de rigueur and quick dismissal is banal at best. While I prefer Howard’s vibrant prose to what DeCamp and Carter did to the stories, I appreciate the attempt to craft an overarching narrative out of brief snippets. DeCamp and Carter are like historians or archeologists trying to fill the gaps lacking the full depth of Hyborean imagination. Flawed as their interpretation of the Hyborean age is I believe it is worth experiencing.

As for not appreciating the DeCamp and Pratt stories…That just demonstrates a lack of imagination and whimsy. It doesn’t require a need to read SF/F as a 13 year old to appreciate them, but it does require not approaching the text like a “post-Sarris/Kael/Harold Bloom era” critic who envies the talent of that trio and substitutes sneers for engagement. It should be noted that Bloom himself thought DeCamp and Pratt worthy of representation in his Masters of Fantasy biographical book, but it’s more important to think that fantasy about baking pies, feeding heroin to “dragons,” and acquiring student loan debt are the height of the genre’s possibilities.

These critics are the kinds of genre critics that S.T. Joshi had to battle in defense of Lovecraft.

Ken Lizzi

Well, I can’t agree with you, John, and I can’t join you in the Tor camp. I’ve recently reread some of de Camp’s Viagens Interplanetarias stories and thoroughly enjoyed them. I suppose one man’s treasure is another man’s crap. But I don’t have any interest in debating these issues, certainly not on the internet. Perception and reaction vary individually and I see no reason why mine should be universally held. Does this revoke my Black Gate knighthood?

RuneQuest

> This is about sharing the work we care about, and simultaneously listening to the
> values and beliefs of a new generation. It’s no longer acceptable to have a
> protagonist with barbaric attitudes towards women. I’m embarrassed it once was.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with ‘thoughtful criticism’. I agree that cultural values have moved on since Sprague de Camp’s efforts and I embrace those changes in my daily life. Yet shouldn’t critics also be ‘simultaneously listening to the values and beliefs’ of previous generations too?

It is not the criticisms I object to, since we should all be held up to critique, but the inflexible tone that criticism takes. Otherwise how can we read, appreciate and value works by often controversial greats such as Dickens, Twain, Steinbeck or Lawerence? Social dynamics aside, do we ridicule Doc Smith or Larry Niven for crude storytelling, now that professional fiction writing has become more sophisticated? Is Moorcock slighted for 100 page novels now that younger audiences are trapped into ever-lengthening doorstops churned out by later authors?

I’m not saying that early fantasy rates amongst the best literature in human history, far from it, but there must be understanding that cultural values and purchasers’ desires change over time. If dismissed out of hand due to a jarring of generational perspectives, then our future descendants will be robbed of both the imagination and evolutionary lessons these authors offer us.

So, yes, whilst some of de Camp’s stories might offer poor penmanship and irritable misogyny, they still have _something_ to offer; after all they inflamed the imaginations of thousands of readers, helping to preserve and expand this beloved genre! If nothing else, I can guarantee that even the most popular authors we have today will be critiqued for their apparent ‘barbarism’ in the future.

Thus although I admire what Tim and Mordicai set out to do, they need to apply a little thought and respect to show why all these books in Appendix N have value, even if cautionary, to newer generations of fantasy lovers. Some slightly more constructive criticism and more good-natured humour would go a long way.

(Oh and thank you John for the honorary Knighthood. I shall bear the title with pride!)

James McGlothlin

John,

I don’t see my initial comment as “overreacting to Mordicai and Tim’s comments” nor do I think I”m “get[ing my] back up any time one of our sacred writers is criticized.” Some of these authors I’m not very familiar with.

I made it very clear (I stated it twice) that this sort of critique should be done. Nevertheless, Mordicai and Tim seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing this sort of critique (and with a fairly snide attitude at times, as pointed out by others above).

As you mentioned, this is the new generation’s approach to literature. My comment, as far as being a criticism, was meant to highlight that I believe TOO MUCH attention is focused upon this sort of critique. It gets boorish after awhile. I’m surprised that Mordicai and Tim have not commented on how “non-Earth conscious” or “lacking green initiatives” these older authors are!

If I’m “getting my back up” about anything, it’s this over-attention towards presently unpopular views of older authors in general. I see this all of the time in my field of philosophy. If people mainly hear that The Republic was written by a misogynist racist (i.e. Plato), it seems to me that many will discount reading one of the greatest works of philosophy.

And that’s a shame.

This is what my original comment was meant to imply–not that this sort of criticism should not be done. If this “new generation” can’t receive as well as give criticism, then they’re being hypocritical.

James McGlothlin

John,

I don’t want this to be an endless going-back-and-forth, so I’ll make this my last comment on this post.

I deny your claim implying that I have “dismissed [Modicai and Tim’s] critiques” in any of my comments. Rather, what I have done is complain that the particular critiques in question are over-emphasized. That is not a dismissal.

Also, in doing this, I in no way see this as “apologizing” for De Camp’s, or anyone else’s, views. Again, I AGREE with the critique. But Mordicai and Tim (and typical reviewers today) spend far too much time on these sorts of issues. It’s far too easy. Pick just about any work of literature, philosophy, economics, etc. from the past 2500 years. Just as a sheer matter of probability, it will almost certainly contain views that are not as socially or culturally acceptable today. Big surprise.

Furthermore, in your reply to RuneQuest’s question: “shouldn’t critics also be ‘simultaneously listening to the values and beliefs’ of previous generations too?” you said, “Not if they find them repugnant, no.” I just do not understand this attitude. How can one responsibly criticize a view without seriously investigating it?

Ayn Rand’s ethical views may be repugnant, but I don’t think I have the authority, or even privilege, to say so without first investigating her views myself. I’m not going to ignore something just because it’s hip to do so.

Tyr

Grognardias Appendix N reviews are a far better read. Certainly less self righteous.

the wasp

I recently reread Lest Darkness Fall. I didn’t find myself as offended by some of the things the tor guys did only because the protagonist Padway is unpleasant. He’s focused, selfish and cynical. They’re offensive but not surprising from the character. I’m not sure if DeCamp was expecting his readers to like Padway or subtly presenting the type of man who could succeed in that period. Mostly I was startled to find the book dull on this reading. Maybe I’ll pull out The Best of LSDC to see how some his stories hold up.

RuneQuest

As far as I can see, none of us has any problems with the books being reviewed, nor that certain elements of the books are rightly identified as problematical or poorly written. Nor do we expect everyone to like the pulps of our older generations. They should be reviewed critically, I think we all agree on that.

What has frustrated some of us is the ‘tone’ or ‘emphasis’ used by the reviewers. James found them snobbish, Christian interpreted their reviews as banal and sneering, I find them edging towards snide and the humour flippant, and Tyr used the words ‘self righteous’. There’s just something very superficial about attacking expired cultural mores, when as far as we know these may have been included deliberately to highlight a character’s flaws.

Are we all horribly wrong, inspired by the same vindictive muse, or are we picking some implicit expression in their language?

Perhaps I’m just getting old… Anyway, thanks for a congenial and illuminating debate thus far! 🙂

ChristianLindke

Then maybe the gloves are coming off…

” Though the complete Chronicles of Amber combine to form a towering ten volumes, I merely sampled the first book in the series, Nine Princes in Amber, originally published in 1970, and that was more than enough.

“Egads!” you may shout at me. “The Chronicles of Amber is a classic fantasy series, worthy of great acclaim and even worthy of its own Tor.com reread!”

That may be true, but if the first book in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series is considered any kind of classic, then it must be because the novel is graded on a curve. A curve called “pretty good for an opening novel in a series that gets a whole lot better,” or maybe a curve called, “better than a lot of other, trashier fantasy novels released in 1970, when there was nothing on television but episodes of Marcus Welby and the Flip Wilson Show to keep us entertained.”

[…] and Mordicai have been none too gentle to some of the writers in Appendix N, including L. Sprague de Camp, Gardner Fox, and even Roger Zelazny. But in Norton and Moorcock they find authors they can […]

[…] Appendix N become that it has not only spilled over into the wider world of fantasy (including this very site), but it has led to a mini-revival in pulp fantasy, with authors such as Abraham Merritt, […]

[…] As Bensen noted (and Mordicai Knode and Tim Callahan at Tor.com recently complained about in the de Camp chapter of their Appendix N survey), de Camp enjoyed putting “ordinary, sometimes crass, people in […]

[…] You can read their earlier assessment of the de Camp/Pratt collaborations here. […]

[…] of Unreason followed the first two Harold Shea stories among their collaborations. In this story, they introduce a new character, a young diplomat named […]

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